As his team embarked on a historic run to the Class AAA semifinals last year, speculation swirled that Benjie Wood was in his last days as the head coach of the North Hall boys basketball team.
Rumor had it Wood was headed to Buford High, his alma mater, which could provide him a wealth of athletes and a chance to bring a basketball program back to glory.
While he admits it was tempting, Wood chose to stay with the Trojans. And his mind was made up as he and the rest of the team approached their hotel lobby following the loss to LaGrange in the semifinals.
As the players and coaches neared the entrance, Wood heard a ruckus and wondered what was going on.
“There were around 300 North Hall fans in the lobby of the hotel giving us a standing ovation,” Wood said during Monday’s first official day of practice. “You just don’t get appreciation and community support everywhere. The people up here have been very gracious and supportive of us. It’s just a great place to be.”
Especially considering the year the Trojans had last season.
Three years removed from finishing 15-10 and missing the playoffs in Wood’s first year, North Hall set a school record in wins with 24, won the Lanierland and Region 7-AAA championship, and were one win away from playing for a state title. All that success hasn’t changed Wood’s philosophy.
“We’re going to show up every day and we’re gonna do what it takes to make a champion,” Wood said. “Sometimes the results are there, sometimes they’re not, but at the end of the day, we want to look at ourselves, look at everyone associated with this program and the community and say, ‘You know what? We did everything the right way and we did it to the best of our abilities.’
“Would we like to see one of those shiny rings on our finger? Absolutely we would,” he added. “But a lot has to happen.”
The first thing is staying healthy, which the Trojans are already have some issues with following the recent news that senior Chris Barnes suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder and, according to Wood, his status for the season is uncertain.
One thing that is certain is the Trojans’ new status as the team to beat.
“Even though it’s a new region, they’re still the team to beat,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said.
Wood knows every other team in the region feels the same way, and being the team on top is not exactly a position he wants to be in.
“There’s that old saying about the lion and the cheetah and being hunted in the jungle,” Wood said. “We know that we’re the hunted instead of the hunter. But like the saying goes, either way, when you wake up, you better be running.
“It’s always easier to be the hunter,” he added. “It’s harder to stay on top then it is to get there.”
Especially in high school basketball, where injuries and roster turnover occur as often as extended win streaks, and players on winning teams can become overconfident. With that in mind, Wood has preached how humility can play just as big of a role as talent.
“It’s gonna be a challenge for the kids to stay humble and remember what it took for us to get to the top,” said Wood, who has incorporated the letters P.H.D. into his team’s mantra.
“P.H.D. for us means: Poor, hungry and driven. We want to play like a hungry man who hasn’t had anything to eat. If we get like the fat cat and feel full and satisfied, we’re not going to be very good.”
And that can’t happen in what appears to be an ulta-competitive Region 8-AAA.
Along with the Trojans, who return several key players from last year’s team including Barnes, Lance White, Kanler Coker, Ethan Smith and Amin Aziz, the region boasts 2009 playoff teams Johnson, West Hall and Franklin County, which graduated three players off the team North Hall beat in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
Throw newcomer Monroe Area, a team on the rise in White County, and traditional power Gainesville into the mix, and Region 8-AAA will be just as deep in talent as the former 7-AAA.
“There’s going to be seven or eight really good teams in this region, just like we’re used to,” Wood said. “But we’re going to try and focus on ourselves. If we do that, we’ll be OK.
“We’re a team that’s just that: a team.”